Yunnan Province, China - if pushed for my favourite tour I would have to say that this is it. A gem of a ride that takes us from the Tibetan town of Shangri-La, via passes high and gorges deep, to the town of Dali, home the the Bai minority people. Between these two contrasting towns we have a stunning ride on almost deserted roads, as for nigh on two weeks we explore magnificent scenery of snow capped peaks, pine forests, cobbled climbs, and an ancient tea trading town, We dine on what many who have tried it consider to be perhaps the finest cuisine in Asia - the kitchen of Yunnan really bares very little resemblance to the rather dull Cantonese fayre of you local Chinese restaurant.
This year’s tour was a small but splendid affair as Echo, Li, and I travelled with PaintedRoads regular David and new comer Paul enjoying the finest weather we have experienced to date in this fine fine province.
PaintedRoads’ LabRat runs are fast becoming a popular tradition amongst our more adventurous guests. A new tour in an interesting and off the beaten path location, these inaugural runs contain, to one degree or another, an element of uncertainty somewhere along the way. Whereas usually I go over a route one final time alone before running an inaugural tour, a LabRat Run involves taking a small group of laidback adventurous PR regulars along to join in the fun of the final pre production ride.
This year's tour was through a region of China through which I have long planned to run a tour. Indeed as far back as the dawn of this century, when I travelled overland from Kathmandu to Hong Kong via Lhasa, I have been of the opinion that the Kham region of Sichuan Province was perhaps an altogether better place to experience Tibet than the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This felling was reinforced when, in 2007 and 2008 (as far as my tatty olf memory recalls) I explored the area on a somewhat overloaded bicycle, camping and exploring and pondering running my own tours.
And so it came to be that at the tail end of May this year seven PaintedRoads regulars join me to ride the inaugural Sichuan Tour. We were supported by Echo, and our regular driver, mechanic, tour explorer, and trusted friend Lee. Additional support was provided by cycling guide Monk, and second driver Maveric.
The ride is surly beautiful, and challenging. And this year the challenge was even tougher than expected with a startlingly early onset of the rain season and a two day section where the untimely demise of the main road building contractor had left the road in a state far worse than it was a year ago, quite the opposite to the situation we had been led to expect when exploring the way last June. It transpired that not only had the chap in charge of road repair operations made his way prematurely to the Happy Hunting Ground, he had also managed, rather cunningly, to spirit all of the contract’s money with him, leaving a swath of disgruntled peasants along the way eager for payment and and making sure that work didn’t not continue until they received satisfaction.
The route was nothing if not eclectic. Road surfaces ranged from pristine tarmac, to wet and muddy, to gravel, to rural concrete byways. Climbing was an ongoing theme of the tour, with some of the longest ascents and consequent descents imaginable. Climbs of over 40 kilometres were all but a daily occurrence, and the downhills that followed, with the often shallow(ish) gradients that such a long climb often ensures, were a laid back relaxing affairs through exquisite mountain scenery. Not all hills are surfaced equally in Sichuan though, and those seeking a more exciting pass to cross were not left wanting, as on occasion we ascend and descend on loose and exciting byways - shredding dude!
The highest pass of the tour was 4700 metres, with roads above 4000 metres cropping up on a leg shatteringly regular basis. However with sleeping elevations considerably lower that our highest point each day altitude related health issues never cropped up, save of course for the inevitable breathlessness while crossing an oxygen depleted pass. What was interesting to all was the difference a few hundred extra meters in altitude could have on a fellow, or lass. When 4000 metres seemed OK, an extra 500 metres could take the wind from even the largest lungs. The passes were not only metaphoricaly breathtaking, but also quite literally.
I feel that I have rambled on quite long enough, now I should leave the pictures to tell the story.
Before singing off though, I would like to thank David, Kreg, Marko, Dianne, JP, and Allison very much for not only their participation and good humour, but also their enthusiasm for adventure through a beautiful and challenging wilderness.
Ladies of the Yi minority group
The first major climb, 45 KMS of ascent from Daju village
Mani stones - the mantras of Tibetan Buddism carved in stone are a regular feature
One of many pristine road surfaces...
and one of many gravel roads
Local ladies at Bao Shan village
Leaving Bao Shan by boat
The begining of two days of less than pristine byway
Two day's of unexpected road works left us all a tad tired
Lunch at 4500 metres
Desending from 4500 metres we loose 2000 metres on one wonderful descent
A buddhist monastery
Another 40 kilometre descent
Many thanks to Echo, seen here at 4400 metres, for her endless hard work running the tour, always with a cheery smile
Later in the tour the Tibetan homes are treated to a coat of white paint.
This chap offered us yak butter tea as we crossed the tour's highest pass
Cooking up lunch
Visiting a monestery
We were not always the only two wheeled adventurers
The final high pass
Descending towards the fabled Shangri-La on the final day
Cycling guide Monk
The group - JP, Dianne, Allison, Kreg, David, Keith, Marko, and at the back Monk
This year's Ho Chi Minh Trail tour through the mountains of Central Vietnam was, to say the least, great fun. Including Phong and I in the count there were six of us riding this somewhat undulating route from the nations hectic capital Hanoi, to the beautiful riverside town of Hoi An, some thousand kilometres to the south.
The venerable General Arthur, and Kiwi David, both PaintedRoads regulars, were joined by Nicholas and Mark, two chums from the far north of the United Kingdom who’s determination to train for the tour through a bleak Scottish winter can be seen as nothing other that highly commendable.
Personally I enjoyed the tour tremendously. With an overcast sky for 99% of the trip we were treated to temperatures mostly in the low 20ºs, with the mercury nudging the 30ºs just once so far as I was aware, and even then for less that an hour. To complement the excellent climatic conditions we had a group of people with a similar approach to their cycling, meaning a relaxed bunch with the occasional turn to a light hearted touch of competitiveness. And when the day’s ride was over, and the chilled beer emerged from the guest house fridge, the aprés ride atmosphere was every bit as good as the riding.
A fine tour then? I will leave the final word to bicycle tour new comers Mark and Nicholas.
Mark Adams - (47) A portly middle-aged gentleman and recreational cyclist with a penchant for long weekend rides, the occasional Audax, and the odd Sportive.
"I don’t do package holidays and hate guided tours. It’s been 25 years since I did either and the memory still grates. My conundrum is I have a window of opportunity for an adventure, no time to plan and a finite window in which to complete it. With a very clear idea of what I want to do and more importantly what I don’t want to do. I take to the internet and find Painted Roads.
Point to point cycling in remote terrain travelling through a fascinating country, delivered with a great personal touch from a small independent company - who could ask for more? David, owner of Painted Roads, cycled every inch of the ride with the group and managed the group in a very non-intrusive way. His light touch allowed the group and individuals to ride their own ride. This allowed the group dynamic to comfortably evolve. This relaxed approach was possible due to David’s extensive efforts in planning the trip, his excellent choice in local guide and the many years’ experience gained cycle touring and delivering trips in SE Asia.
I’m a cyclist and primary goal is to maximise my time in the saddle. I set out with this objective; with no great desire to be ushered from one tourist attraction to the next. Travelling through remote and challenging terrain to roll into a small village allows you to unwittingly immerse yourself in the culture. The flip side is that this requires a degree of patience and expectation management in respect of accommodation. However, this is a compromise that pays back in dividends through the experience gained. The juxtaposition between the time spent on the trip and the post trip R&R at one of the more popular tourist resorts was stark. This really highlighted the quality of the experience gained by travelling by bike in a small group through towns and villages which have been little impacted by tourism.
One of the very many lasting memories of the trip will be rounding a bend on a particularly long descent to happen upon a troop of baboons crossing the road. My immediate thought was I know the protocol for unwanted attention from dogs, but don’t remember anything in the briefing relating to baboons. I stop, watch then make their way back into the jungle and feel blessed to have encountered them.
Having returned home I now long to create the opportunity to join David and Painted Roads on another great adventure. My confidence boosted by the trip down the HCM Trail I’m looking for something bigger, more challenging, more remote … Whatever my next adventure maybe, I sincerely hope it is with Painted Roads".
Nicholas Croll - Scots man, new commer to cycle touring, and not afraid of the occasional artic run.
"I undertook my first ever cycle 'holiday' with David Walker/Painted Roads by riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail tour in March 2018. I didn't really have a holiday, instead what I did get was an adventure that far exceeded my expectations and included magnificent scenery, fantastic cycling, great food and top class hospitality.
The highest praise I can offer is that the next time I am seeking a cycling 'adventure' my first point of contact will be Painted Roads. Forget the large tour operators for your next cycle tour - choose Painted Roads and you won't have any regrets. Your biggest problem will be deciding which one of the fantastic sounding tours you will take.......good luck!"
At 75 you would think he would have slown down by now - General Arthur could just be the real life Benjamin Button.
An old US airstrip north of the Seventeenth Parallel
Morning rush hour on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Exploring the path less travelled
Visiting a brick factory
Final dash to tea brake
Wooden houses, rice terraces, rivers, valleys and rural lanes. Long climbs and lovely descents sweeping through terraces of rice and past traditional dressed minority ladies in working the fields.
A small group is never a bad thing with an inaugural tour as it allows some flexibility to iron out any creases. It also gives opertunity to assess the tour in a real world situation, with guests on board. And so when Pat & Keith got in touch to say they would like to join this year's South China tour we jumped at the chance to run the tour with a couple of good fun good riding regulars. And so, with Echo taking the roll of lead guide we all set off with our regular driver and ace mechanic Lee at the wheel of our support vehicle.
What followed was two splendid weeks of bicycle exploration along the byways of China’s Guiyang Province and Guanxi Autonomous Region. Ancient wind & rain bridges, villages of wooden houses, intricate terraces of rice, bamboo forests, challenging climbs and winding descents, the cycling was as beautiful and enjoyable as the food was fine and the company a pleasure.
Thanks Pat & Keith, looking forward to seeing you both again, hopefully before too much time passes.
Echo takes care of most of the organisation of the China tours, and South China was her first time as local guide - a task she carried off with aplomb.
Keith takes a rest by the Li River
Pat on one of the many extended downhill sections
Long Ji Rive Terace, the dragon's back - it's a fine challenging climb to reach our guest house with a view by noon. The afternoon can be spent relaxing or wandering through the beautiful hills, crafted by hand.
Pat & Echo.
Refered to by some regulars as "David routes" PaintedRoads tours are just not right without some gravel excersions.
It's China, some construction is inevitable.
Not as lost as she looks, of felt, it's always great to explore the countryside at close range.
PaintedRoads' tour always take post ride rehydration very seriously.
The back streets of Da Xu old town.
Guide on parade. Wooden house are typical architecture in the villages of Guiyuang Province.
With the building of new highways, such as can be seen top right of this image, the old roads are left quiet, ideal for rural riding.
heading out of town following our rest day.
Ancient (or at least a little bit old) storage huts with corn cobs drying outside.
Winding a path along the Li River.
Posing for a snap shot a kilometre before tour's end.
Our driver, mechanic, and tea brake provider Lee.